If you have ever wanted to be like your favourite player, perhaps you have kitted yourself out in the latest Rafael Nadal gear; maybe you have slipped on a headband like Dominic Thiem; or started waggling your racquet à la Fabio Fognini.
But if you really want to be like a professional, you need to start thinking about your racquets and specifically, customisation.
When most people buy a racquet in a shop or online, they are given one straight off the factory floor. What they may not know is that there can be a difference in weight and feel between two of the “same” racquets, with the stated weight of the frame varying significantly.
Professionals, in particular, want their racquets to be as similar as possible, says Yannick Bizzotto, who has worked as a pro player racquet technician at Babolat for the past seven years. “Even for people like us, we can feel differences. For professionals, because they are the job tools, they need to have them very, very close.”
Always with one thing in mind
Some of the world’s top players, like Rafael Nadal, work with manufacturers before racquets are built, helping with design and specification. Others make the changes later, customising their racquets in different ways, almost always with one thing in mind.
“There is a very simple reason for that,” Bizzotto says. “It’s to increase the power of their shots because at their level, they play very fast, their shots are very powerful and mostly they are trying to find a way to give the ball the most heat, to be as heavy as possible, to put their opponent furthest from the baseline.
“In the top 300 or 400, everybody wants to get customisation. Because they are playing a lot, they’re using a lot of racquets. They want to have the specification – weight, balance, swing weight, twist weight, length – everything the same, perfectly at the same specification, to not feel any difference between the racquets when they change.”
Players have always been looking for that edge that might help them take the next step in their career, the 1-2 per cent that could turn a good performance into a winning one. The importance of string tension has been known for decades but customisation of the frame is now the go-to move for a professional, and it’s also something that any player of any level can do.
There are two main ways to customise a racquet by adding weight: putting lead tape on the end of the frame or putting silicone inside the handle. “For us, it’s silicone in the handle, because Babolat racquets are empty inside,” he says. “Then we just pull out the bumper, we hide some lead tape on it, then we close it, and it's like a classic racquet that you can find in the shops, but with different specification.”
Tennis players are creatures of habit and most are very particular in how they want their racquets customised. Some players like Leo Borg, have joined the Babolat team for specific sessions to test their racquets on court. But some players are more particular about what they want than others.
Some can sense the slightest change
“Fabio Fognini is a guy who would never change anything on his racquet, no weight, no balance, no string weight, always the same product,” Bizzotto says. “And sometimes we have a guy like Rafa (Nadal) or Dominic (Thiem) – from the moment he is 18 to when he is 25, the game is getting stronger, they change little things in their game, so they want to adjust a little, maybe 2 grammes more or 2 grammes less. It really depends on the situation and what they want.”
And then there are some who can sense even the slightest change.
“We try usually to make the player focus on the feeling,” Bizzotto says. “If you start to put numbers in their head, it gets complex. Some players won't feel anything when there is a difference of three or four grammes between the racquets, but for others, it can be minus one gramme, or plus one gramme, and they will feel the difference. It’s crazy sometimes. I did this test with Albert Ramos Viñolas and there was literally one gramme difference between three racquets I was making in testing. Every time, he ranked the racquets in the right order. That was impressive.”
And just because two players are physically similar, that doesn’t mean they will want the same things.
“You can have two guys, very tall, like Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Albano Olivetti, two powerful guys, very good serves, very big, very strong,” he says. “One guy would have a racquet with more length, with the balance in the handle for more manoeuvrability, but very high weight, from 340 to 350 grammes, unstrung. And the other guy would have your average racquet, like 320 grammes, balance higher, because one serves and goes to the net and the other stays on the baseline so he wants power. A lot depends on the style and the way they want to play, tactics and everything. Then you adjust the specification to the player.”
Next time you’re struggling for form or want a bit more power, take a leaf out of the professionals’ book and make the racquet your own.